Pandemic, Press Conference and Performance: What future for the politician’s ‘Direct Address’?

27/04/2020. London, United Kingdom. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson gives a statement outside 10 Downing Street, as he returns to work following recovering from Coronavirus at Chequers. Picture by Pippa Fowles / No 10 Downing Street. © Crown copyright

I decided not to watch the coronavirus press conference the other day.  I heard the names of the speakers and decided they weren’t the performers I wanted.  Never mind the news, I wanted a different leading man.  And that tells me something about what has quickly become a tradition.  These events, intended to convey news, have become a bizarre form of entertainment. That’s partly because they are not what we expect from politicians in the UK.  In this country, televised government press conferences and direct media addresses by politicians to the public are rare.  The question is whether these will remain post coronavirus and whether they are a good idea.

There is a very different tradition in the US. It was JFK who realised the theatrical possibilities of the press conference. The practice existed before his Presidency but he gave it stardust.   Since then US Presidents have shown a range of approaches.  But whether the President appears or not , the press secretary’s televised briefings are a regular staple of US politics.  That means viewers can get familiar with the journalists and the press team.  And of course it is all on the record.

The US also has  much more of a tradition of the President speaking directly to citizens.  FDR’s fireside chats became famous.  They became the weekly radio address (put on hold by Trump).  US viewers are also used to direct TV statements and to the State of the Union speech (which despite being an address to Congress is actually aimed elsewhere).

Of course a US President is directly elected while a UK Prime Minister is not.  This in part explains the relative lack of direct address here.  Apart from at times of war, these are  rare.  Theresa May’s deliberate TV address to voters, ahead of a 2019 European meeting on Brexit, shocked many, partly because of the content but also because of the mechanism.  Speaking directly to camera and flanked by union jacks she said this:

“You’re tired of the infighting, you’re tired of the political games and the arcane procedural rows, tired of MPs talking about nothing else but Brexit when you have real concerns about our children’s schools, our National Health Service, knife crime. You want this stage of the Brexit process to be over and done with. I agree. I am on your side. It is now time for MPs to decide.”

Criticism flooded in.  Many felt that May was talking to the wrong audience.

Outside diplomatic events, televised press conferences are equally rare in the UK.  Governments have at times used this as sort of Review of the Year events, or to mark something beginning, but for the most part interactions between the government and the press are done behind closed doors.  The lobby – the group of journalists with special access – even have a briefing referred to as “the huddle”.  Every now and then there is a campaign for briefings to be recorded and published.  And for a while some basic text did appear. Live tweeting was also allowed after a row earlier this year. But as a general rule this self-policing group prefer the shadows.  And it suits the government to keep briefings out of the public gaze.

Once the immediate crisis is over, and there is no felt need for a daily update, will things go back to normal media-wise?  And should they?

There is no doubt that allowing the government to directly address the population on a regular basis creates difficulties.  There are very real problems of balance and democracy.  There is a reason why broadcasters have to be politically neutral. There is a reason why Party Political Broadcasts are allocated according to a formula.  Would there have to be equal time given to the opposition?  And if so what about smaller parties? Outside a crisis it seems clear that allowing too much government advantage poses a problem.

But what about press briefings? If these were more visible, argue some, the more harmful off- the -record spinning would be restricted.  Citizens would be able to see what was said and what was asked, and draw their own conclusions.  They would also be able to see whether some press spokespeople really were bullies as has been reported.

Of course televised press briefings don’t stop off-the-record conversations or more private information.  They simply mean the interactions take place somewhere else.

So after this period of unusual apparent openness I  suspect the media environment will return to its old ways.  And the government may find that our willingness to hear more direct messages is rather limited.

Paula Keaveney is Programme Leader for Politics at Edge Hill University.


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Where is the Balance – Democracy in the Lockdown

The arrival of CORVID 19 has changed our annual routines.  Every Spring we know to put the clocks forward, to expect events like the Grand National and the Cup Final and to expect the steady tramp of the political campaigners’ tread.  Because for politicians, May is polling day.  There is always an election somewhere in early May – except of course this year when the Government postponed a whole slew of elections to 2021.  Virus control measures, like social distancing and staying at home were seen as incompatible with public polling stations and crowded counts.

So here the balance was weighed, and after some delay, the Government decided that anti- virus action trumped democracy, or at least allowed democracy to wait a little.

The UK Government’s decision, and those in other places, raise questions about where the balance should be and can be.

One of those keenest for elections to continue this Spring was French President Emmanuel Macron.  France was due for a huge set of local elections.  More complicated than a UK polling day, these contests frequently involve a run-off round.  Citizens usually have to vote twice before any decision is made.  The first round took place despite the lock-down but the second round was then postponed.  Turnout was down with special precautions at polling stations around the country.

In the US we are in that part of the election cycle which sees a whole host of primary contests as part of the Presidential selection.  These are run by individual States or State parties, and we’ve seen many push their polling dates into June or move to absent voting – which usually means by post, except that is in Wisconsin where a bizarre stand- off led to court hearings and a row between the Governor and the State legislature.  At stake was whether and how to run polling day in early April and how to deal with postal votes.  The Republican legislature wanted the date and existing rules to stand.  The Democratic Governor wanted to postpone.  And this being America the judges got drawn in.   The result was few polling places,  slow moving queues of voters wearing facemasks, confusion over the postal vote deadline, and a lower than usual turnout.  One of the pictures of the year will be Jennifer Taff and her home made “This is Ridiculous” placard.   Wisconsin was choosing people for some other roles as well as the Presidential primary, but it is hard to see the urgency of any of them.

Another election to go ahead was the national contest in South Korea in mid-April in which the governing party was relected with in a landslide.  Turnout was up.  The election saw plenty of precautions though including voters’ temperatures being taken. Anyone suspected of being ill voted in a more secluded polling booth which was then sanitised.

In Poland the Governing Law and Justice party is determined that the Presidential election, due on May 10th, goes ahead.  This is not surprising as the party’s candidate, the incumbent Duda, is currently polling at more than 50 per cent with the closest challenger on 10.  Plans to carry on with the election have caused angry scenes in the Polish Parliament as first measures for some postal voting, and then measures for a completely postal vote were pushed through.   There are very real worries about whether, on such a tight timescale, everyone entitled to vote will get a correctly addressed ballot in time to take part.  But that’s not the only problem.  Coronavirus in Poland means public gatherings can’t happen.  And that in turn means parties can’t run their usual campaigns.  This has sparked critical comment at European level, with the Organisation of Cooperation and Security in Europe making a statement shortly after the Polish Parliament vote.  “Genuine elections require an authentic campaign in which voters can hear the programmes and opinions of all candidates in order to make a well-informed choice,” said [i]ODIHR Director Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir. “The current limitations on public gatherings due to the pandemic make campaigning close to impossible. I am concerned that if the presidential election goes ahead under the current circumstances, it may fall short of a number of international standards.”

Approaches to whether or not people should be able to exercise their right to vote depend on the progress of the virus.  But they also depend on political factors.  They also raise the issue of the importance of elections in democracy and the perception of democracy.  It would be hard, having seen the turnouts in some English local elections, to argue that all citizens are losing out.  Most don’t bother to vote.  But those who were dissatisfied with their current representative or their current council administration have lost the chance to say so.  And maybe it is the loss of opportunity that matters, not the way it has been used in the past.  And of course elections focus minds when politicians are making decisions.

The advance of the virus has seen more governments and more administrations take more powers.  For the most part the public have not disagreed.  The crucial test will be how that power, or whether that power, is relinquished and how citizens get back their say and use it.

[i] The Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights is part of the OSCE.  Its responsibilities include organising Election Observation Missions.

Paula Keaveney is Programme Leader for Politics at Edge Hill University.  She also takes part in Election Observation Missions.


Note: all comments are moderated before posting. Not all comments will be posted. Please avoid language that could be viewed aggressive, abusive, political or similar. The moderators decision is final.